Self government

Gwich’in get a glimpse of what self-government would look like

On the second day of the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s Annual General Meeting in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik painted a picture of what a Gwich’in government might look like.

“The current model of service delivery by the Government of the Northwest Territories is simply not working for our people,” Kyikavichik said. And he said the Indian Act “continues to diminish the role and authority of band councils in our communities.

“The Gwich’in government, in our view, offers opportunities to change that.”

The Gwich’in Tribal Council has been negotiating a self-government agreement for over two decades. This work began shortly after the Gwich’in signed a land claims agreement in 1992.

Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik said Wednesday he wanted to clarify why, after more than two decades of negotiations, the council continues to pursue the establishment of its own government. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

How a Gwich’in government would be structured, its powers and how long it would take to put it in place were the focus of discussions at the Gwich’in Tribal Council on Wednesday.

Kyikavichik said self-government negotiations have been divisive in the past. He wanted to clarify why, after all these years, the Gwich’in Tribal Council continues to pursue the establishment of its own government.

“First and foremost, we need a more effective government system for the Gwich’in,” he said.

Kyikavichik presented a list of goals for a Gwich’in government. They include: reconnecting with land and culture; language revitalization; improve people’s health and quality of life; improve homes and infrastructure; create jobs and business opportunities; and include youth and elders in decision-making.

Dinjii Zhuh Regional Government

Under the draft agreement in principle, Kyikavichik said, the Gwich’in Tribal Council would become the Dinjii Zhuh regional government. He would have a great leader (Dinjii Iisrits’at Chit) and its capital would be Fort McPherson, NWT

Within the Dinjii Zhuh government, Fort McPherson, Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik would each have a local government with its own leader (Dinjii Khehkai) and the board.

The Dinjii Zhuh government would serve as a “coordinating body” and represent the Gwich’in in meetings with the governments of the Northwest Territories and Canada, Kyikavichik said.

“That’s what our tribal council, or our Dinjii Zhuh regional government, should be about, it’s about supporting our communities, not consolidating power,” he said.

Currently, Kyikavichik said, each of the four communities has a Gwich’in council president and a band council chief, which is confusing.

The Dinjii Zhuh government would merge the Indian Act band council and designated Gwich’in organization from each community into one government.

The municipal governments of the four communities would remain.

“We’re not targeting public government, which includes non-Gwich’in governance,” Kyikavichik said.

“We are opting for aboriginal government, which involves only our Gwich’in people, and governance in the Gwich’in settlement area outside of municipal boundaries.

Power of taxation

Money is obviously an important part of actualizing self-government.

“We don’t want this government unless we have the money to be able to deliver,” Kyikavichik said.

He said the ability to impose taxes, such as a liquor tax, would help generate the cash needed to provide government services.

The prospect of taxing powers was welcomed by Willard Hagen, a delegate representing the Nihtat Gwich’in Council in Inuvik.

“Self-government without taxation…is an oxymoron,” he said.

“You’re not self-sufficient if you don’t have your own free-flowing funding.”

The process can take years or even decades

To be sure, building responsible government for things like health care, justice, and education systems is a daunting task.

For this reason, Kyikavichik said, the Gwich’in Tribal Council has decided to focus on seven “primary jurisdictions” in its final agreement negotiations with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories.

They are: governance, fiscal relations, land, housing, culture and language, taxation and economic development.

After a final agreement is reached, the Gwich’in government would seek to take over services such as education, justice, health and income support – a process that would likely take more than 15 years, said Kyikavichik.

The Gwich’in government could also explore responsibility for the regulation of alcohol and cannabis, marriage, adoption and gambling.

The goal is to finalize a tentative agreement and have it approved at the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s next annual general meeting in August, Kyikavichik said.

“The tentative agreement stage allows us to engage with our people,” he said.

The tentative agreement would then be submitted to Canada for approval, which Kyikavichik said could take more than a year.

The Grand Chief estimated that final discussions on the self-government agreement would take three to five years. The council has set 2027 as the year it hopes to finalize an agreement with the Gwich’in government.

This process is not the only option, however.

Kyikavichik said they could also choose to skip the tentative agreement phase and go straight to final deal talks, or put the entire process on hold.

Some delegates urged the assembly to move forward.

“Let’s not take a break, let’s not take a break. We have so many successful Gwich’in working for us,” said Barry Greenland, a director of the Nihtat Gwich’in Council.

“We can’t sell ourselves short saying we can’t do it.”

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera